Floating Robots: Artificial Intelligence on Display at the Tate

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Boundaries separating “what is human” from “what is machine” seem to be dissipating in our age of increasing artificial intelligence. How do these blurring lines currently affect the work of designers, especially within the context of immersive and interactive experiences? A new art installation at the Tate Modern explores one possibility where floating machines interact with themselves, humans and the museum environment.

Inside London’s Tate Modern, an awe-inspiring collection of floating robots currently populates the museum’s famed Turbine Hall. These “aerobes” are the creation of New York based artist Anicka Yi who describes her installation as “an ecosystem of machines, featuring different floating machine ‘species’ and building off my concept of the biologized machine.” 

Officially titled Anicka Yi: In Love with the World, the project explores links between art and science. The exhibit itself consists of autonomous flying machines whose physical designs were created by German company Airstage. These translucent, egg-shaped pods—some with legs suggestive of octopus arms—gently float through the air above museum visitors. Sitara Systems (Las Vegas, NV) programmed the artificial intelligence that runs each machine’s virtual ‘mind’ and which helps the aerobes navigate the Hall—fully self-directed—and make decisions about how to interact with visitors. 

“The installation explores ideas of the machine sensorium, the sensory ecology of intelligence, and artificial physical intelligence,” said Yi in her proposal for the exhibition, which is the 2021 Hyundai Commission at the Tate. “My installation posits machines in the world, relating and responding through their particular body and sensorium, a new concept that I am terming artificial physical intelligence (API).”

“The aerobes are controlled by an Artificial Life Simulation system that provides them with context about their environment, their inner motivations, and their individual traits. Together these factors give rise to self-directed choices that the aerobes make within an ever-changing ecosystem,” says Nathan Lachenmyer, co-founder of Sitara Systems. “The aerobes possess a unique set of senses; they use high-frequency radio waves to communicate with each other and to map out the space, and they use thermal imaging to see visitors. Their perception of the world is truly different from our own.”

“As the commission unfolds, machine species will coevolve and develop intelligent behavior through their physical relationships with one another, with museum visitors, and the air of the Turbine Hall,” contends Yi.

In this way, Yi’s installation brings a whole new dimension to the terms “interactive” and “immersive” within the context of museum exhibits and art installations by asking us, the visitors, to reconsider our relationships with our own minds and bodies, as well as how we encounter other beings, including those we view as “artificial.” Yi hopes that by expanding our ideas of intelligence, kinship, and even “life” itself, we might access new forms of compassion, empathy, and universal experience.

Anicka Yi: In Love with the World, continues at the Tate Modern through February 6, 2022.

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